Districts work quickly to launch distance learning plans with in-person classrooms closed

Governor won’t reopen schools, but learning to continue

A student works online but outside during the state-mandated school closure

With Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement that face-to-face learning is done for the remainder of the school calendar year, leaders in Kent ISD’s 20 districts are working quickly to put in place alternative plans for learning that best fit the needs of students.

Districts were already anticipating Whitmer’s decision, announced this morning, that schools must remain closed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, with plans to reopen for next school year. Districts are now expected to deliver instruction and learning opportunities in various ways. Plans will look different depending on varying needs in districts.

Related: Learning from a distance: ‘Keep them happy and keep them learning’

 “The question was how do we ensure we are empowering districts to meet the challenges they confront and make use of assets they have available,” Whitmer said during the televised press conference. “The biggest challenge is that with the disparate educational system we’ve had in Michigan there are very different challenges across the state. 

“It’s not just flipping a switch and saying everyone go online, because broadband is just not available in areas. Not every child has access to a device. Not every school district has the ability to devise and instruct an online course that meets the needs of the kids.”

Also under Whitmer’s plan, seniors will graduate, standardized testing including M-STEP and SAT are cancelled and students will not be penalized or held back if they cannot meet alternative learning expectations.

Districts sharing ideas and working together

Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff said he and his staff members are working with district superintendents and staff to respond to the governor’s request as quickly as possible. Districts are working together to develop distance learning programming for all students.  

Kent ISD is creating a common instructional platform for districts to tap into if they choose. “A lot of it will be online and e-learning, but the reality is Kent ISD is not unlike any other area of the state. There are disparities. Every community is going to be different and Kent ISD is no exception.

“Our team is reviewing instructional plans from states across the country to create the best possible experience for students and their families, who will be essential in helping their children learn during this difficult time,” Caniff said. 

Kent ISD also plans to distribute 1,000 Chromebooks it was able to purchase to help districts equip students without any devices.

Caniff echoed other district leaders in that his utmost concern is that families have what they need.  “The deeper concern and focus is well being of students and families… Michigan is in a crisis right now.  Before we can talk about academic learning, the health of our students and families is the priority.”

Offering a blend of instruction methods, but first ensuring basic needs

For some districts, the plan to keep students learning involves removing as many barriers as possible to make sure instruction is accessible. First and foremost comes ensuring families have food and other necessities.

“We are humans and we need to make sure we meet basic needs,” said Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston. The district has already distributed 40,000 meals to families in the 1,800 student district, through its food service department, Kids Food Basket and Hand2Hand.

“This is the first time in 150 years we’ve ever tried something like this, let alone try to do it in a two- to three-week period. We are going to stumble, fall, and get back up again. We are looking for patience, understanding and grace as we implement this plan.”

— Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman John Helmholdt

Godfrey-Lee is also distributing Chromebooks to those who need devices and providing internet connection for those who don’t have it. The small district in the city of Wyoming already provides Chromebooks to all high school students, but will now get them into the hands of  younger students. Kent School Services Network coordinators are helping families work with providers to take advantage of free internet offers.

 “We are going to make this the best experience we possibly can,” said Polston. Instruction will include a blend of remote live instruction opportunities and a flipped model where lessons are posted for students to access when they are ready. He’s encouraging students and teachers to make the most of the at-home environment. Complete science observations in the yard, for example. Be creative. The district has already sent home enrichment learning opportunities.

Polston knows families are going through a lot right now — varying circumstances include when students are able to access instruction. “Our position is we are not trying to recreate the in-person experience,” he said.“We know not all students will experience the same amount of learning and we will have safety nets moving forward.”

He said he fully intends to have graduation when it’s deemed safe by the State of Michigan to gather again.

Seeking to meet academic and mental health needs K-12

Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler said he was pleased with Whitmer’s order, calling it “a common sense approach to work toward meeting the needs of our K-12 students” through the end of the school year.

“It’s imperative for people to understand that districts are being asked to do something that has never been done before,” Shibler said, namely to meet the “academic needs and mental-health needs of 1.5 million-plus students” in Michigan. But he said he’s confident his district can do so for its approximately 8,000 students.

A team of administrators, teachers and mental health workers has been working to develop a K-12 lesson plan that will be placed on the district website by April 15, Shibler said. The district already provided an online suite of learning resources for families to use following Whitmer’s original closure order March 16. 

A district survey found that of the 4,300 students who responded, 93 percent say they have access to online learning, Shibler said. “For those who do not, we will develop a plan for distribution of paper-and-pencil-ready instruction,” he added.

“People need to be patient on this,” he emphasized. “This is not something you just have ready-made, pull out of the drawer and implement it.”

Shibler also said the district will do all it can to provide a ceremony of some kind for its graduates, even if it’s during summer, if large gatherings are allowed by then.

Learning will be happening in nontraditional ways, like in a hammock where this student spent time reading

Supporting one another: ‘We can do this’

Wyoming Public Schools Superintendent Craig Hoekstra said his team has been working to put a plan into action and it will launch soon. “We want to continue to support one another during a challenging time, when there are lots of unknowns. We are here and we will always be here.”

The district is also deploying Chromebooks to families in the 4,143-student district who need them, and is working to provide internet access. 

Learning experiences — focused on essential instruction during the last seven weeks of school — will be made available to all students at all grade levels, online and through paper packets. This will allow students to progress through the curriculum. Enrichment opportunities will be available for students who are willing and able to do them. The district has already posted many enrichment opportunities on its website.

“Now is our time to shine in creative problem-solving and innovative practices for new ways to deliver services to our students and families,” he said.

While some instructors might connect with students who choose to join on virtual platforms, online learning will be flexible and accessible at any time.

“We want to make sure we are responsive and mindful of very different circumstances of our students. We can’t expect a full day of instruction to happen remotely,” he said. 

Hoekstra said they are working to launch the plan as quickly as possible. 

“Though we are separate, we are all together. We can do this. We will do this, one day at time.”

The challenge of access for all students, and doing it fast

In Grand Rapids Public Schools, Whitmer’s plan presents challenges for a district where more than 70 percent of its 14,000-plus students are low-income, and about 25 to 30 percent of them do not have access to online technology or reliable internet, said spokesman John Helmholdt.

However, he praised Whitmer for “her clear and decisive leadership during this pandemic” and for clarifying “what districts need to do to ensure teaching and learning continues.”

“One of the greatest challenges here will be getting technology and internet accessibility into the hands of the families that need it most,” Helmholdt said.

Officials aim to do that by determining which families at each school need this help, then providing them with Chromebooks or iPads at schools the way meals have been given out at the “grab and go” distribution sites. Families who already have their own devices at home will be asked to use them, to free up devices for families who don’t.  

“Now is our time to shine in creative problem-solving and innovative practices for new ways to deliver services to our students and families.”

— Wyoming Public Schools Superintendent Craig Hoekstra

Accommodations will be made for those students who have difficulty with digital tools, including thousands of special education students and English-language learners, Helmholdt said. That could involve sending materials by mail or teachers being on phone or Zoom calls with students, he said.

“This is the first time in 150 years we’ve ever tried something like this, let alone try to do it in a two- to three-week period,” Helmholdt said. “We are going to stumble, fall, and get back up again. We are looking for patience, understanding and grace as we implement this plan.”

This forced school closure has highlighted the inequities of the school funding system, which leaves students in poverty most susceptible to learning loss, he added.

“Now’s the time for the governor and the State Legislature to get serious about how we’re going to target resources in this next coming budget to support our most at-risk youth … to catch those students up, to get them back up to speed to address that learning loss that occurred during this pandemic.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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